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The post-lawyer law firm: The legal industry’s rise of productivity engines

Vol. 74, No. 5 / Sept.-Oct. 2018

Jordan Furlong1

Every law firm in the world, whether a solo practice or a global giant, shares one common feature, powered by one fundamental assumption. This feature and this assumption are so basic that we often don’t even notice them. But they underlie our whole conception of law firms – and as they start to crumble, the entire law firm edifice above them is going to start giving way.

The characteristic is this: Every law firm consists of lawyers. The assumption is this: You need lawyers to have a law firm.

Now, to be fair, this has been a perfectly sensible assumption throughout the history of the legal market. Lawyers preceded and enabled law firms, in much the same way that merchants preceded shops and priests preceded churches. Law firms only developed in the first place because, at some point in history, one or more lawyers decided to set up a commercial platform for the convenient and profitable provision of their services. Lawyers; ergo, law firms.

Over the next several years, this is going to change. Lawyers will no longer be considered essential to law firms’ ability to deliver legal services. A growing number of legal tasks can already be carried out by para-professionals, systematized and automated processes, and a rapidly multiplying legion of software products. You can get work done in a law firm right now without requiring a lawyer to do it. Technological innovations and regulatory developments promise more of the same into the foreseeable future.

The population of legal problems that can be resolved solely by the direct, real-time application of lawyers’ efforts is going to shrink a little more, and eventually a lot more, every year. This is going to change everything we believe to be true about law firms.

What’s a Law Firm Without Lawyers?

Across the legal market, from the smallest local firm to the largest global colossus, law firm leaders are starting to ask themselves some truly thought-provoking, even groundbreaking questions.

“Could we deliver some legal services without using lawyers?”

“Could we be more productive and effective if we solved clients’ issues without assigning lawyers to the job?”

“Could we grow our business opportunities by offering clients solutions that don’t require lawyers?”

It’s not exactly a secret within the legal industry that lawyers aren’t the easiest assets to manage. As a general rule, they tend to be expensive, autonomous, difficult to lead, and prone to decamp to competing businesses without warning. The more experienced and expert the lawyer, the more these characteristics will manifest themselves. So when you consider the volatile and mercurial nature of this valuable resource, and if you heard that some of this resource’s functions could be rendered by other assets that suffer from none of these liabilities – well, you’re at least going to try to learn a little more, right?

The traditional law firm is a commercial vehicle whose structure is very familiar to us: a collection of lawyers gathered in a central location under a single brand name to deliver legal services, supported by staff members and various other resources.

The “engine room” of this vehicle is the lawyer. Law firms’ ownership, profit-sharing, workflow, billing, compensation, governance, and culture all revolve around lawyers. Law firms’ naming conventions are almost universally based on the surnames of their individual founding lawyers. Law firms go so far as to divide their personnel into two airtight categories: lawyers and everybody else (a.k.a. “nonlawyers”). And if a law firm’s lawyers don’t believe something is worth doing, the firm ain’t doing it.

Lawyers, in other words, are absolutely essential to the traditional law firm – not just to the firm’s revenue and sales, but also to its very definition and identity. I suspect the only reason we say “law firm” rather than “lawyer firm” is to economize on syllables.

This traditional law firm model is now, slowly, giving way to a new vision of law firms, one that resolves not around lawyers, but around the firm’s capacity to deliver services of value to clients. The new law firm’s “engine room” is not comprised of collected lawyers, but of collected legal expertise, applied to client needs through the use of systems, processes, technology, and expert professionals, as well as of lawyers.

A potent combination of advanced technology, powerful databases, sophisticated analytics, and streamlined procedures is enabling law firms to deliver solutions to clients without necessarily requiring the real-time application of lawyers’ efforts. Put differently, law firms are discovering that they can provide some legal services to clients using only applied knowledge resources and technology. This will change everything.

The Rise of the Productivity Engine

Consider the following products rolled out by large law firms in the United States and Europe in the past few years:

  • Software that provides regulatory gap analyses in data and privacy risk areas;
  • Client-facing claims management systems and loss prevention tools;
  • An online dashboard that lets corporations navigate the financial regulatory landscape;
  • Artificial intelligence systems for e-discovery, cybersecurity, and contract and document review;
  • Machine-learning systems for document review during merger and acquisition transactions; and
  • Tools that calculate potential client damages in class actions and identify litigation risks.

These and other technology-powered products and services are essentially “productivity engines.” They enhance the user’s ability to complete a task or reach a solution while reducing the amount of time and money required to achieve that goal. Earlier, I talked about the new “engine rooms” of law firms; these are the actual engines.

There is no disputing that using these products and services increases legal productivity. There is equally no disputing that this outcome is antithetical to the traditional law firm’s ability to generate revenue.

These high-productivity engines share two characteristics. The first is that, yes, lawyers’ efforts and knowledge invariably contributed to their development. Expert systems, for example, require lawyers’ expertise to populate the databases and provide direction to the algorithms that will reach conclusions. But lawyers are not required to directly deploy their efforts and knowledge for clients’ use in real time. Their expertise has been distilled and “embedded” within the system, so that it can be applied over and over again, many times a day in many different locations by many different clients. Lawyers are needed at various stages to help build the systems that carry out this work. But lawyers are not needed to actually carry out the work themselves.

In other words, clients can access a lawyer’s expertise directly, by themselves, without having to call the lawyer up and set the timer running. This is a clear benefit to the client, who saves time and money while gaining more control over the process of finding answers and solutions to his or her questions. Equally, the time and effort that lawyers would have had to personally devote to delivering these services can be freed up and applied to other revenue-generating activities, or even dispensed with altogether. This is a clear benefit to the lawyer as well – although a lawyer who is compensated and promoted based in part on his or her billable hours won’t necessarily see it that way.

The second characteristic shared by these productivity engines is that in almost every case, the core element of the offering is information: both legal knowledge and nonlegal data, applied and leveraged by technology. Every law firm in the world possesses information, whether assembled in precedents kept inside servers and filing cabinets, stored up in libraries and online subscription services, or tucked away in the labyrinthine recesses of their lawyers’ brains.

For law firms, information has always been a static resource, tapped when required but otherwise lying latent and dormant. The development of productivity engines is transforming that information into a dynamic resource, an asset that can provide value all on its own, without needing to be picked up and wielded by a human with a J.D. Up until now, to provide legal solutions of value to their clients, law firms could only deploy lawyers, or the occasional experienced clerk or paralegal. Today, however, firms can also unleash their information through advanced systems that can deliver answers and solutions.

This means that for the first time, law firms have other resource options beyond lawyers alone for the development and delivery of value to clients. They can access, analyze, and apply information already prevalent in their systems or their markets. They can use this information to develop new business lines and generate viable income streams independent of lawyer activity. Legal information is widespread, can be accessed with relative ease, and doesn’t complain about partnership profits or threaten to join the law firm down the street.

From the law firm’s point of view, information deployed through productivity engines is a formidable asset. From the individual lawyer’s point of view, on the other hand, it’s a formidable rival.

What we’re witnessing, therefore, is the start of the gradual de-lawyering of law firms. So long as lawyers’ equity is still required to finance the capital and operations of a law firm, lawyers will still constitute a significant percentage of a law firm’s total personnel. But they will constitute a steadily diminishing percentage of the law firm’s revenue-generating assets and competitively significant personnel. Sources of law firm productivity and profitability, at one time a club exclusively open to lawyers, will start to include law librarians, legal knowledge engineers, legal data analysts, and legal productivity engines developed to harness the information the firm has assembled and applied.

Today, lawyers generate more than 99 percent of a law firm’s revenue. Once productivity engines are ubiquitous in law firms, that percentage will drop below 50 percent.

Why would law firms commit themselves to such a radical transformation of their businesses? Simply put, because the market will reward those firms that adopt these advances and punish those that resist. The firms that adopt and develop these productivity engines will be able to sell their services at a lower price without having to compromise on quality. It’ll be a simple matter of competitive mathematics.

The Post-Lawyer Law Firm

If you plan to build or lead a law firm through the end of the 2010s and into the 2020s, the coming “inessentiality” of lawyers is a critical development to understand and act on. A law firm whose value is defined in terms of its clients and its markets needs to focus on building systems that can meet those needs, rather than the interests of its equity-owning lawyers. The only thing that matters in building those systems is that they are effective, not whether the people who operate those systems come with a law degree.

Law firms need to give lawyers the appropriate, rather than maximum possible, degree of importance in delivering law firm services. That degree will be significantly less in the future than it’s been in the past. The implications of this development for law firms, as you might image, are enormous.

Law firm culture is modeled on lawyer culture. Law firms (like lawyers) value and encourage analytical, individual, critical, and risk-averse behavior. As lawyers begin to decline as a percentage of law firms’ business generators, these characteristics will also start to decline, while other behavior – empathetic, collaborative, constructive, and entrepreneurial behavior – will begin to rise. Collective action in the interest of the enterprise will become easier to encourage and exemplify, if only because there will be fewer lawyers in positions of power over the firm’s business to resist it.

Law firm workflow has long consisted of assigning tasks to a lawyer and waiting for the lawyer to sequentially and painstakingly carry them out, often with only glancing attention to standardized procedures. As other professionals and technicians become more involved in the creation of legal services, and as automated systems and programs take on more tasks previously carried out by lawyers, law firm workflow will become more standardized and productivity that doesn’t require lawyers’ direct involvement will increase. Lawyers will no longer be the only ones whose priorities determine how work gets done.

Law firm compensation systems are currently built around lawyers’ billed hours and lawyers’ business origination activities. As services start to be delivered through, and clients come to be attracted by, the performance mechanisms of the enterprise, firms will find more sophisticated and accurate ways of measuring and rewarding individuals’ provision of value. Lawyers’ time and efforts will be the source of a decreasing percentage of the firm’s revenue, opening the door to a reconsideration of what we’re actually paying lawyers to do. Firms will get better at incentivizing the contribution of real value.

Law firm pricing is currently founded on lawyers’ billable rates and hours worked. As more products and services are created and delivered with minimal lawyer involvement, through the use of other professionals and advanced software, law firms will develop new pricing mechanisms that don’t require the crutch of lawyers’ hourly rates. They will start integrating buyer’s circumstances, and the unique value of a legal service in those circumstances, into their pricing equations. Competitive intelligence will become key to profitability. Lawyers’ hourly rates will no longer determine what buyers pay. The market will do that instead.

Law firms’ leaders have traditionally been lawyers with robust practices who could command respect for their legal accomplishments, regardless of whether those lawyers possessed leadership skills. At many law firms, you could not hope to serve as managing partner or group leader unless you also brought in a lot of business or billed a lot of hours. But as lawyers’ revenue-generating efforts constitute less of a firm’s overall income, those efforts will also play a smaller role in leadership discussions. Professional law firm businesses, employing a diverse range of employees, will require professional leadership, exercised by people whose credentials extend beyond the size of their origination credit.

I want to be clear: A “post-lawyer” law firm is not the same thing as a “lawyer-free” law firm or a “zero-lawyer” law firm – nor would those be sensible or worthwhile objectives. The goal of successful law firms in the new market is not to dispense with lawyers altogether, but to use lawyers appropriately and proportionately, in order to maximize the overall productivity of the firm and the value it provides to clients.

But if the “no-lawyer” firm is not a desirable goal, then the “all-lawyer” firm is no longer a sustainable one. The personal, direct, real-time involvement of a lawyer is not necessary to complete a growing number of legal tasks, and firms’ operations will evolve to reflect that. We no longer require lawyers to carry out every legal function that the market requires, and that will be clearer to the legal profession over the next several years.

Lawyers will provide many law firm services in the future, maybe even most – but never again all.

Life After Lawyers

The individual lawyer is moving toward a more proportionate role in the law firm business. Sometimes, that role will be an owner or a shareholder of the firm. Sometimes, it will be a leader and strategic executive officer. Sometimes, it will be a manager of people and processes. And sometimes, it will be a supplier of high-value expertise and insight. But I seriously doubt it will be all four at once, or even more than one or two at a time. Lawyers have very specific and high-value skill sets, but law firms will need more than what lawyers can provide in order to function effectively.

A traditional law firm exists to provide buyers with access to solutions for their law-related challenges through the application of a lawyer’s time and effort. The future law firm will answer to the same description, minus the last nine words. So you must think of your law firm as a business entity that helps buyers overcome legal challenges and meet legal opportunities – not as a hotel for lawyers, which is the description to which most law firms answer today.

In the end, you need to ask yourself: “Is our law firm a platform for lawyers to sell their services? Or is it a business that delivers value to buyers of legal services?” How you answer those questions will determine all your coming decisions about what kind of law firm you’re going to build and maintain.

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue of Wisconsin Lawyer, the official publication of the State Bar of Wisconsin, and is reprinted with permission.


1 Jordan Furlong is a Fellow of the College of Law Practice Management and a member of the Advisory Board of the American Bar Association’s Center for Innovation. He is a leading analyst of the global legal market and forecaster of its future development. He helps lawyer think differently about the services they provide and counsels law firm leaders about reengineering their firms’ purposes, strategy, and operations. He has addressed law firms, state bars, courts, law schools, and numerous legal associations throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Europe, and Australia. This article is excerpted from his book Law is a Buyer’s Market: Building a Client-First Law Firm, available at law21.ca/books.